Taxi drivers, businessmen, and housewives wait impatiently in a gas line some 40 cars long under a stifling midday sun for their monthly five-gallon allotment. Grocery store owners a few blocks away say that prices have risen some 20 percent in the past two weeks.
The people of this capital city sandwiched between Lake Tanganyika and the Mirwa Mountains are feeling the effects of more than a month of sanctions placed on Burundi by neighboring countries. This isolation began with a coup that replaced a democratically elected president with military strongman Maj. Pierre Buyoya.
It was a rare case of African governments coming to agreement when Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zaire, and Zambia, led by former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, announced an embargo on the tiny central African country July 31 in an effort to force a return to democracy.
But many here, and Burundi watchers abroad, argue that continuation of the sanctions may force the ouster of Major Buyoya, a relative moderate, in favor of an extremist who would make an already explosive situation much worse.
Like Rwanda, its northern neighbor, Burundi has long suffered from ethnic tensions between Hutus, who make up some 84 percent of the population, and Tutsis, who make up about 15 percent. Fighting between the Tutsi-dominated Army and Hutu rebels has escalated in recent years. Some 150,000 people have died since 1993 when the country's first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated by Tutsi soldiers.
In the weeks since the coup, the country has seen the largest rebel offensive in three years as fighting displaced some 30,000 people in the north, according to the United Nations World Food Program.
Yesterday, Burundi's Tutsi-dominated Army said 14 people, including six Hutu rebels, had been killed in an attack on a camp for displaced people. The deaths occurred a day after Roman Catholic Archbishop Joachim Ruhana, a moderate Hutu, was killed in an attack on his car Monday. The National Council for the Defense of Democracy, the political wing of the largest Hutu rebel group, denies any role in the killing of the archbishop and claimed the Army was responsible, Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, people in Bujumbura, populated almost exclusively by Tutsis, are growing weary of the sanctions.
One young Tutsi man, his emotions quickly bubbling to the surface, threw his hands up in frustration in the midst of shouts and honking horns in the gas line.
"Buyoya is the only man right now who can bring peace to this country," said the man, who refused to be identified. "If [Julius] Nyerere insists on the sanctions continuing, then it will only get worse here, and people will lose patience with Buyoya and demand someone who will only escalate the war."
That someone, he and others say, is Jean Baptiste Bugaza, a man who ruled Burundi from 1976 to 1987, when he was ousted by Buyoya. Mr. Bugaza is supported by groups of young Tutsi militants, such as Sans Echecs (without fail) and Sans Defaites (undefeated), as well as by groups of university students and within the military. The sanctions, many argue, can only benefit extremist elements in both camps.
"It is very ironic that Buyoya was seen by the outside world as the best hope for moderation in Burundi, and now with his arrival in politics, in a bloodless coup, he is being punished by the outside world," says Philip Gourevitch, an author based in neighboring Kigali, Rwanda, who writes about the region.
Bujumbura, meanwhile, is showing increasing signs of strain. The city's main power line was cut by rebels, leaving all but one suburb without electricity for more than two weeks. The city was witness to repeated nighttime firefights between the Army and rebels in the mountains ringing the city last week.
Nor is the suffering confined to the Tutsis. The few thousand Hutus in Bujumbura have sought refuge in crowded camps in the city, where they are joined by others fleeing fighting in the countryside. Their condition is nothing less than squalid.
During a weekend press conference, Burundi's Hutu Prime Minister Pascal Firmin Ndimira said "the population must accept some of the sacrifice. We must accept that there will be ... more cuts in power and water. But we are prepared to pay the price."
Buyoya brought a glimmer of hope with him on his return from meeting with Nyerere in Tanzania over the weekend. Buyoya said Nyerere had agreed to the idea of holding a regional summit in the near future to discuss the sanctions. Tanzania also said gasoline for aid agencies in Burundi would be allowed across its border.
Burundi's neighbors seem to be holding to the sanctions but some worry that Hutu refugees from the civil war in Rwanda in 1994 are passing supplies to Burundi's Hutu rebels.
"Extremists in the camps in eastern Zaire are clearly in league with the Hutu extremists in Burundi," Mr. Gourevitch says. "These sanctions are not balanced. The only way to make them balanced is to also put sanctions on Zaire."